It's been said that hair is the barometer of the soul, reflecting our general well-being. And, while it's true that stress, poor nutrition, and daily exposure to the elements all contribute to making hair look dull and lifeless, much of the damage to its appearance is self-inflicted. Blow drying, perming, curling, and coloring can leave hair looking more like a haystack than the crowning glory it was meant to be.
To help restore health to your hair, just look to the past. For centuries, beautiful tresses have been attained with the help of Mother Nature. The beneficial properties of natural remedies were well-known to the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Chinese, who cultivated plants and herbs such as rosemary, sage, ginseng, and nettle for cosmetic as well as medicinal use.
Throughout history, herbal infusions have been used as rinses to revitalize hair. To make your own infusions, simply steep 1/3 cup of one of the following herbs in a quart of boiling water for 15 minutes. Cool, strain, and use as a final rinse after shampooing.
Chamomile has been used for generations to add highlights and gloss to fair hair.
Ginseng replenishes moisture, giving hair more flexibility and sheen.
Lavender, with its soothing fragrance, can renew hair's silkiness and shine.
Lemongrass conditions hair, leaving it soft and lustrous.
Nettle was commonly used as a conditioner in the 19th century, adding strength and luster to overworked hair.
Rosemary, with its stimulating properties, is believed to encourage hair growth and control dandruff. It not only gives sheen to dark hair; it's a great detangler.
Sage has been used since the Middle Ages to cover those pesky strands of occasional gray.
Yarrow, once treasured by the ancient Greeks, improves hair's manageability.
Healthy Hair Basics
Keeping hair healthy and beautiful requires more than an ancient remedy. Developing healthy habits is key. A hit or miss strategy can't make up for the daily practice of gentle care.
Surprisingly, what we think of as lively hair is hardly alive at all. The root, an outgrowth of the hair follicle (of which we have about 100,000 embedded in the scalp alone), is nourished by a network of blood vessels and is the only living part of hair. The visible portion of hair is just dead matter. It makes sense, then, to give your scalp special attention.
Richard Stein, hair care specialist and author of Set Free-The Book About Hair, believes massaging the scalp is the single most important thing you can do for your hair.
Using your fingertips, gently massage your scalp in a circular pattern for a minute or two every time you shampoo. According to Stein, "massage encourages hair growth by stimulating the scalp's rich blood supply and helping to flush away metabolic waste."
How you dry your hair can also affect the health of your scalp. Stein urges us to resist the temptation to "scrub" our hair dry, suggesting instead that we gently squeeze out the moisture in the folds of a thick towel. Since heat from blow-dryers robs hair of its natural moisture, air-dry your hair whenever possible. If you must use a blow-dryer, keep it on the lowest setting.
Although brushing your hair distributes the scalp's oils, the fabled 100 strokes a night probably did more harm than good. If you must brush, never brush hair when it's wet-it's a sure-fire path to breakage and split-ends. Instead, use a wide-tooth comb or, better yet, your fingers, to gently detangle and shape.
When there's no time to wash your hair, try a "dry" shampoo. Simply mix a tablespoon of arrowroot with 1/3 cup of bran and rub it into your hair to absorb the excess oil. Gently brush out the residue and you're set to go!
Shades of Nature
Color has always fascinated us, especially when it comes to our hair. Whether we want a whole new look or just need to hide a few gray hairs, nature can provide the solution.
Exalted in ancient Indian literature and reportedly used by Cleopatra, henna has been used to color and condition hair for centuries. Denise Santamarina, owner of Natural Nouveaux, a chemical-free salon in Las Vegas, swears by the strong red plant pigment. "Unlike chemical dyes which penetrate the hair shaft," explains Santamarina, "henna wraps around each hair, effectively sealing it with a reflective coating." The result is shiny, thicker hair.
Easy-to-use, henna powder is mixed with hot water to a mud-like consistency and applied to hair. After about 45 minutes, the mixture is rinsed out, leaving hair gleaming with a reddish glow. Available at most natural food stores, henna is often blended with other plant pigments such as chamomile or walnut shells to achieve different hues.
Color can also come from a variety of other natural sources. Beets or cranberries provide a burnished red tint. Various shades of brown can be obtained from walnuts, pecans, coffee, or tea. Chamomile, marigolds, or dandelions will give blondes a golden glow.
The only requirement for these plant dyes is that you begin with a hair base light enough to "take" the color. To help guarantee the final effect, do a strand test before applying the dye to your whole head. Check the strand periodically to calculate the time required to achieve the desired result.
To release the pigment from flowers, stems, leaves, and roots, cover 3 cups of the desired plant material with cold water and bring to a boil. Boil for one hour, then strain. Continue boiling the remaining liquid for an additional hour and cool before applying to hair.
For nut dyes, roast a dozen shells in a frying pan until burnt. Cool and grind them as finely as possible. Mix the powdered shells with enough water to form a paste and spread on hair.
Rescuing Battle-Fatigued Hair
Convinced your hair is beyond help? For a quick protein fix, Santamarina suggests the application of a good quality mayonnaise before shampooing. If you need a more intensive remedy, she recommends a hot oil treatment. "Although sebum (the oil your scalp produces naturally) is the best conditioner, plant oils such as sesame or olive oil work well," she says. Her favorite? "Jojoba. Since it has the same molecular weight as sebum, it comes the closest to duplicating our natural scalp oil."
Nature's Hot Oil Treatment
A terrific way to replenish oils and help repair split ends.
3 tablespoons sesame oil
3 tablespoons jojoba oil
1 tablespoon dried nettles
1 egg yolk
Combine the ingredients in a small saucepan and slowly heat to lukewarm. Skim off the nettles and massage the remaining liquid into hair, coating each strand. Wrap your head in a warm towel and leave on for at least 30 minutes, preferably overnight. To remove the oil, shampoo as usual.
Old Fashioned Egg Shampoo
Nourish hair and scalp with this time-tested protein treatment to restore softness and manageability to dry hair.
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons cider vinegar or juice of half a lemon
Beat the eggs until frothy and massage into the scalp. Leave on for a few minutes before rinsing with warm water. To cut the film left by the eggs, make a final rinse by combining the vinegar (for dark hair) or the lemon juice (for fair hair) with 8 ounces of warm water.
"Unlike many natural hair care products which nourish the hair and scalp, petrochemically-based cleaners can strip hair of natural oils," says Harmony Urgola, Nutrition Manager for Wild Oats Community Market, a Colorado-based whole foods chain.
While every product may not live up to its claims, can conventional hair care be potentially harmful? Research conducted over the last 20 years suggests that prolonged exposure to some chemicals commonly used in hair care products can be linked to allergies, skin irritations, and certain types of cancer. One report by the National Cancer Institute, published in the American Journal of Public Health, states that women who use hair dyes-especially darker shades-have a 50 percent higher risk of developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Another study, conducted by the University of California and published in The American Journal of Industrial Medicine, found that hairdressers had four times the rate of multiple myeloma, a malignant tumor of the bone marrow. The substances in this study included hair dyes, shampoos, hair conditioners, relaxers, and permanent wave solutions. Although these products are used topically, it's impossible to keep them from touching the scalp, where the chemicals are absorbed. In her book, A Consumer's Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients, Ruth Winter, MS, says, "It has now been accepted that all chemicals penetrate the skin to some extent, and many do so in significant amounts." According to the FDA however, these products don't require pre-market safety approval.
If you do use over-the-counter hair care products, be well informed. Don't be fooled by a few natural ingredients or environmentally responsible packaging. Companies such as Aubrey Organics make it their business to insure the true "naturalness" of their products. Always check the list of ingredients and the warning labels. "A good rule of thumb...," says Urgola, "if you won't put [an ingredient] in your body, why should you put it on your hair?"
Although not all petrochemicals are toxic, here are several to watch for: Coal tar is a common ingredient in the darker shades of hair dye, as well as many dandruff shampoos. It's been linked to frequent allergic reactions and cancer in animals. Phenylenediamine, often preceded by an m-, o-, or p-, is routinely found in permanent hair dyes and may produce eczema, bronchial asthma, gastritis, photosensitization, skin rashes, and cancer. Ammonium Thioglycolate, used in hair straighteners, can cause severe burns and blistering.